Monday, March 1, 2010

The thought it suggests...

Knowing I lov'd my books, he furnish'd me,
From mine own library with volumes that
I prize above my dukedom."
             - Prospero, The Tempest
The past few years, I've been slowly remodeling my home.  Inside and out, we've been taking this 70's rambler and giving it the touches that make it immediately apparent who lives there.  Naturally, we started with a library.  Two entire walls of this garage conversion are hidden behind books.  I even closed up a window in one wall to make yet more room for bookshelves and still I find that I'll need more before the year is out.  It is a wonderful problem to have, really.

One of the things that saddens me about the incipient 'revolution' of e-Publishing is that the library will fade from our homes.  That I will no longer be able to take the first measure of a person I am visiting by a quick perusal of their reading habits.  Our habits, our beloved and well-thumbed books and our aspirational texts all whisper a story about us, and when combined speak volumes ahead of a word of introduction being spoken.

In the future do I ask to see someone's Kindle when I walk into their home?

The poet John Whittier said something about a book being not so much the thought it contains, but the thought it suggests.  By its presence, a book is an implication that it has been read and appreciated.

As much as that troubles me, both culturally and aesthetically, what bothers me most is the moving target.  Because what is a book these days?  Is it a tangible thing of pasteboard and paper, leather and thread, buckram and glue?  Is it merely the delivery device for it contents?  Or is a fragile net of words by which we are able to capture our dreams and ideas to share them with others?  The thought it contains, or the thought it suggests?

And more importantly, are the two indivisible?

For centuries, the bookshelves of our homes have been the symbol of our literacy, a glimpse inside our minds and hearts for our visitors and a personal repository of all our intellectual aspirations.  Will a world where my reading habits are no longer immediately apparent to those sitting next to us on the plane or visiting my home be a world that inspires me to read more or less?

Reading is a public act and it always has been.  In the spines we spot in waiting rooms and airport terminals as much as the spines we peruse on the shelves of our friends' homes, we find one another and yes, we also judge one another.  I cannot claim innocence here.  What I see you reading makes an indelible impression upon me.  Whether or not I see you reading makes even more of an impression.  From the books I peruse on your shelves I am putting together my mental impression of you and how you think.

I would like to say that taking reading out of the public realm will mean we will no longer be judgmental because the innocuous plastic case of your e-Reader will conceal from the world at large whether you are reading Seneca or Silence of the Lambs, Tennyson or Twilight.  But the fact is, that once we strip away that last vestige of public evidence that actually reflects the contents of our mind and character, then our appearance will be all the remains for the world to judge us by.

I, for one, would rather be judged on my mind.

Home libraries are and always have been more than just a room to hold our books.  Most book collectors aspire to the look and feel of the libraries of our imaginations as much as we aspire to own the books we love.  Books that have been put up on the wall simply for the sake of making the homeowner look more erudite than they are is not new.  Seneca the Younger complains about it and he was writing around 54 AD. But when the bulk of our written culture is delivered digitally, buying books becomes a more conscious act both for better and worse.  And displaying books in your home becomes ever more and more a choice of ostentatious display and a decision made by the decorator akin to hanging a painting rather than the display of beloved words by an avid booklover.

Or maybe I just worry too much.


  1. "Hey Baby, nice mind!"
    Actually, the thing that attracts me most to people (including my wife) is their mind.

    I agree with you about the loss of physical books and the potential lack of immediate insight into someone. At the same time, I suppose that means we'll actually have to talk to each other to find our common interests. :)

  2. I just have this horrible vision of rows of people with earbuds plugged into their iPads, reading and avoiding each others' eye.

    Maybe I'm just too cynical today.


Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).